This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Beauty,Spring 2005
Fourth Web Papers
On Serendip

Searching for "Political Trends" in Feminine Beauty: A Brief Study

Alanna Albano

Abstract: In order to determine if particular stereotypes are placed on women based on looks alone, twelve members of the Bryn Mawr College community answered a brief survey. The survey involved looking at a collection of pictures of different women, and then answering a series of questions that made references to the women's beauty, intelligence, personality, interactions with others, and job capability. Some small specific trends were observed in the completed surveys; however, it was rather disappointing to find that no two surveys were exactly alike in their responses about the women. Although no definitive conclusion was reached in regards to associating certain stereotypical roles with a particular feminine appearance, the majority of the survey responses reinforced some of the beauty-related issues previously debated in class.

Keywords: Beauty, symmetry, confidence, intelligence, superficial judgment

Experimental Procedure: 9 color pictures of women from various age, job, and socioeconomic divisions were collected onto a single sheet. No information about the women was provided to the participants other than the pictures. A survey consisting of 9 questions was designed to ask about the intelligence, personality, and status of the women (see Supporting Information for a listing of all survey questions). Participants were chosen based on accessibility, relation to the surveyor, and willingness to complete the survey. Tootsie rolls were sometimes used as an incentive, along with a pleasant disposition and firm, polite manner in order to attract survey participants. Usually, stating the overall purpose of the survey worked best when trying to encourage others to complete the survey. Twelve members of Bryn Mawr College completed the survey. All participants were women; eleven were college students between the ages of 20-22, and one was a professor of the College. Seven of the participants had majors in the physical sciences; the remaining five had majors in math, computer science, social science, and the humanities. Participants required 15-25 minutes to complete the survey.

Results: The results of the survey were found to be highly varied among the participants, with only a few common responses to some of the questions. This was probably due to the highly subjective nature of the survey; most of the participants expressed different reasons for answering the survey questions in the way that they did. The majority of the participants considered picture 9 to be ugliest, the least intelligent, and the meanest because of her upturned, snout-like nose, angry look, bad hair, outlandish clothes and makeup, and disproportionate features. Most participants agreed that pictures 3, 5, and 7 were most beautiful because of their large eyes, smooth and clear faces, youthful appearance, calm and composed look, distinctive features, and tidy hair. Surprisingly, the most votes for intelligence were awarded to pictures 2, 7, and 8; whereas picture 7 depicts a model-type woman, pictures 2 and 8 depict average-looking, everyday young women who wear glasses. Pictures 7 and 8 also received the most votes for getting hired for a job, as well as for being overall nice people. Pictures 3, 5, and 7 received the most votes for women who had high-scale, high paying jobs such as models and actresses. However, it is important to note that the pictures that received the most votes for high-intelligence jobs, including doctors, lawyers, and CEOs, were pictures 2, 7, and 8.

In addition to their votes, some participants also wrote additional, very insightful remarks. Confidence, a happy expression, and a tidy appearance, in addition to symmetry of features, seemed to play an important factor in choosing which women were beautiful. These were also important when choosing intelligent women. Some chose intelligence based on the "nerdy" appearance of the woman; for example, wearing glasses in addition to an "everyday" look made for a nerdy appearance. Other participants remarked that they could not make judgments about intelligence, who they would hire for a job, personality, who they would offer money to, or job/life status based on a picture alone. These participants stated that they would need to meet the woman in person and get to know her before making such decisions.

Some participants stated that they would not give money out to any of the women, regardless of looks, simply because they do not give money to others in general. Others remarked that they would give it to any of them by virtue of being nice. This also applied to the "offering assistance" question, where most responded that they would help any of the women simply because it was the right thing to do. Some said that they would not offer money or assistance to anyone who appeared scary, demanding, or unapproachable in some way. Pictures 4 and 6 got the most votes for receiving assistance, because the woman in picture 4 appeared disabled, and the woman in picture 6 had a child with her, and also looked sad and "world-weary," according to one student.

Discussion: When a similar, less extensive survey had been conducted in the English 249 class, I had heard many say that they would hire the uglier woman over the prettier one, and that the uglier woman was the more intelligent one. This immediately called to question the issue of whether or not a woman's beauty would make her appear less intelligent to others. Such an issue had rested heavily on my mind, due to a question a math major friend of mine had posed to me about two years ago. She had questioned why many of the famous female mathematicians pictured in the math department did not look beautiful, and she also asked why it did not seem okay for a woman to look beautiful and be intelligent simultaneously. I admit, she presented a valid point. In my own adolescent and teen experiences, I had grown up thinking that a woman had to look nerdy or appear unattractive in order to be considered intelligent. If a woman was beautiful, that probably meant that she was girly, flirtatious, and possessed no interest in studies whatsoever.

I am not entirely sure how such ideas were placed into my mind; maybe it was the media, the grammar school and high schools I attended, the male-dominated environment I grew up in, or a combination of all of them. Usually, the beautiful girls that I saw in high school and in the media consistently acted ditzy and stupid. In grammar school and high school, other students always said I was smart, but never beautiful, and certainly never both. To top it off, some guys had remarked to me that they could not believe that I was both good-looking and smart. One of the largest flaws in the survey that I conducted was that none of the surveys were completed by men. Male participants might have greatly helped to address my issue of beauty versus intelligence; unfortunately, at the time the survey was conducted, an abundance of men was nowhere to be found (a common dilemma on an all-female campus). Therefore, I had to settle for all female participants, of which there were only twelve. Twelve is certainly not a considerable number for a survey of this magnitude, but it was the best that could be done considering time constraints and a lack of available, willing participants.

The twelve women's responses seemed to be in conflict with my own argument that beauty is not thought to be associated with intelligence. The majority of participants said that the women that they considered to be the most intelligent were the ones that they had also considered to be the most beautiful. Do these responses imply a major discrepancy between the sexes on the beauty/intelligence topic? Or did I just happen to be surrounded by a select group of narrow-minded individuals while growing up? I cannot say for sure, but some of the survey responses certainly challenged my previous thinking. One participant admitted that attractive features could be just as important as other qualifications for jobs, and would probably give beautiful women an edge in the hiring process. Another person stated that if she were hiring someone for a job that required interacting with many people and presenting an image (such as an actress, model, or waitress), she would choose a beautiful woman.

However, the same person who remarked about beauty having an edge in the job process also made a comment that actually supported my original perspective on beauty/intelligence. This person said that "average beauty" would work best for women who would make good lawyers, CEOs, and professors, because these women would still be taken seriously but not passed over for promotions and such based on looks. It was comforting to know that there was at least one other person in the survey who was aware that beauty could play a role in detracting from intelligence. Interestingly enough, this person said that for jobs like housekeepers, chefs, mothers, maintenance workers, and scientists, beauty was "not necessary" and too much beauty might "hinder" the woman's career.

Most participants remarked that they would not loan money under any circumstances, and some would only do so if they were sure that the woman was a nice person who really needed it. Provided the woman appeared friendly and approachable, most participants would offer assistance to her on a busy street corner (with the exception of picture 9, the snout-nosed scowling woman). One participant remarked that she would actually feel more compelled to assist the less attractive women (pictures 4, 6, and 9), since they would be less likely to receive help from others. I was very pleased to see that in some of the survey responses, participants noted that the judgment of beauty is very subjective, and pictures alone are not the best way to decide who is beautiful or not, because "the moments when the pictures were taken may not have been when the women all looked happy," or looked their best. Another person remarked that she found certain pictures of women to be beautiful because of the way that beauty is often defined in society; she also said that the pictures of the not so beautiful women could be considered beautiful if one were to find out about their stories, personalities, and backgrounds.

Considering the many flaws of the survey, such as lack of participants, lack of male input, and its highly subjective nature, it was difficult to come to any definitive conclusion about the stereotypic ideals created in relation to beauty. However, the surveys did demonstrate that an appearance that fit society's standards of beauty (symmetrical features, clear skin, and tidy hair) was found to be most beautiful. However, a high level of beauty did not necessarily correlate with a high level of intelligence. Only one of the more beautiful women (picture 7) was voted to be intelligent, and the two young, glasses wearing-women of the group (pictures 2 and 8) also got intelligence votes. Although some participants refused to make a superficial judgment call based on a picture alone, many responded that the more attractive or more intelligent-looking women appeared to have nice personalities and were more likely to be hired for jobs. Overall, the survey was very informative; nevertheless, it would be better for next time if the survey was completed on a much larger scale. A much larger, more diverse group of people that included various ages and ethnic groups, members and non-members of the College community, as well as those from both gender groups, would be much more beneficial in searching for the political trends that our society holds towards feminine beauty.

Supporting Information: The following are the original questions asked in the survey:
Which of these women do you find to be beautiful? Not beautiful? Either way, explain why.
Which of these women do you find intelligent? Not intelligent? Either way, explain why.
Which of these women would you hire for a job? Why?
Which of these women do you think would be nice people? Which do you think would be mean people? Explain why.
If all of these women asked you for money, which women would you choose to give it to? Why?
What kinds of jobs and lifestyles do you envision each of these women living? Why?
If any of these women found themselves a couple dollars short at the grocery counter, would you spare them some cash? If so,which women, and why?
If you saw any of these women looking hopelessly lost on a busy street corner, would you immediately offer assistance? Which women and why?
Which of these women do you think would make good Doctors? Lawyers? Mothers? Chefs? CEOs? Scientists? Models? Actresses? Professors/teachers? Waitresses? Maintenance workers? Housekeepers?
Any other comments.

The nine photos of the different women, as well as the actual survey responses, are attached to the back of the hard copy of this paper.

| Course Home Page | Course Forum | Science in Culture | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:35 CDT